Perchance to dream
TO read a great book is to look deep into the eyes of your beloved and have that gaze fully returned, without judgment or reservation. In this most intimate form of communication, the words enter our brains straight from the page, almost as if we’d dreamed them. My favorite time spent reading was before I had corrective eye surgery, when I had to hold the book only inches from my face, blotting out everything else in the world. As is not the case with iPods, say, or movies, when we read it’s we who choose the pace -- fast or slow -- at which we take in the words. “Here I am,” a book speaks from its own particular body, be it fat or thin, paperback or hard-bound. “I am putting myself, literally, in your hands. Do with me what you will.”
Is it so odd then, that our experiences with books can be among the most powerful of our lives? I recall, still sadly, realizing that my first marriage -- to a smart and capable woman -- would not last when she told me that “Shogun” was the best book she’d ever read. Was I wrong to give up potential lifelong bliss essentially for reasons of taste? I don’t think so -- and who’d have thought the handwriting on the wall would be James Clavell’s?
Books can touch us deeply, personally, almost physically, like a dream we carry around with us for days. That doesn’t happen often, but when it does my first reaction is to tell no one, so as not to shatter the spell. Then in a week or so I let my secret out to one or two people I trust. Little by little, I’ll begin to speak of my book in public, buy copies for friends, perhaps include it on a reading list for my students -- let it take its chances with all those other books, brutish and coarse, of which the world is so full.
The name of the last book that affected me this way is “The Ten Thousand Things” (New York Review Books). It was written in the early ‘50s by Maria Dermout, a Dutch woman living in Java, and is half memoir, half story -- a breathless poem of a book about the persistence of loss. It’s a book about which people have told me that as they approached the end they read more and more slowly, because they wanted it never to stop.
Though it’s the rapt dreaminess of Dermout’s vision that takes my breath away, those books that slide around between dream and reality are the creations I most respond to. An astounding writer of this sort was Flann O’Brien (pseudonym of Irish journalist Brian O’Nolan, who died in Dublin in 1966). Of all O’Brien’s books, my favorite is “The Third Policeman” (Dalkey Archive). To read it is to climb a mountain and look out over a new ocean, in truly wild surmise. “The Third Policeman” also features one of O’Brien’s favorite themes, trading molecules between the human and the inanimate.
Speaking of oceans, Stanley Crawford’s legendary “Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine” (University of New Mexico Press) takes place on one. It’s the story, touching and odd, of a widow on a drifting barge; reading it is like experiencing one of those days that manages to be rainy and sunny at the same time.
Among the queens of message-mixing, Chris Kraus combines fiction, autobiography and criticism in ways that are as funny and provocative as her titles (“Aliens and Anorexia,” for example). Her first novel, “I Love Dick,” was described by one critic as “ ‘Madame Bovary’ as if Emma had written it.” Her new book, just out, is called “Torpor” (Semiotext(e)/MIT Press). I haven’t read it yet but have put it away as a sort of emergency kit for the next time I need a shot of polymorphism.
Sometimes fate -- or a delay in translation -- holds books aside for us too. Roberto Bolano’s novels have only recently become available in English. My favorite, “By Night in Chile” (New Directions), is at once absurd, disturbing and comic in its linking of the Catholic Church with the disappearances of so many under Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Another kind of mix, this one of science fiction and unsettling pastoral, is “The Wall” (Cleis Press), by Marlen Haushofer. It’s a dream in reverse, about a woman who wakes to find herself surrounded by a wall. (For years after I read it, the book did seem like a dream to me, because everyone to whom I recommended it told me it didn’t exist: In fact it did; I’d just been misspelling the author’s name.) It’s a reverie that, while it lasts, leaves the reader feeling both anxious and protected.
My introduction to the novelist Ann Rower was at a reading in which she shared with us portions of a young cousin’s suicide note. It was an unnerving experience: sweet and hilarious, appalling and terribly sad. Rower’s world is filled with wryness and irony, and she nails it in “Armed Response” (Serpent’s Tail), a prickly slice of life in Southern California.
That peculiar combination of the real and unreal also pervades Camara Laye’s “The Radiance of the King” (New York Review Books). It’s part Conrad, part Kafka and as beautiful and paralyzing as one of those dreams from which we can’t quite awaken. Along with Laye, Amos Tutuola is a classic writer perhaps read less often than other Africans these days. “The Palm-Wine Drinkard” (Grove) is like a ride in an amusement park: exhilarating, exuberant, innocent, but also profound. I can still feel the chair I sat in on a warm afternoon years ago as I read it above a flea-infested rug in Ocean Park.
The Africans don’t have a monopoly on dreaming. Torgny Lindgren’s novel “Light” (Oberon) is a comic masterpiece of the Black Plague. Think Scandinavian magic realism, think people going to bed beneath a blanket of bunnies to keep warm, and you’re close.
The immaculate writing in Dennis Cooper’s tough novels of the gay scene have earned him a national reputation, well deserved. “God Jr.” (Black Cat) abandons all that to explore the mysteries of memory, art and grief through the medium of a video game. It’s a book that unties one’s moorings, the boldest step into a new paradigm of narrative I’ve read in a while.
One of the most enjoyable mixes I can think of is of the sensual and mental, and Spanish novelist Javier Marias, a kind of lurid and erotic Henry James, gives us exactly that. My two favorite books of his have Shakespearean quotes as their titles: “A Heart So White” and “Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me” (New Directions).
Boris Vian’s novels are records of yet another sensibility stuck somewhere between the conscious and subconscious -- a sensibility innocent, comic and profound, and profoundly sad as well. I tell people the one to start with is “Foam of the Daze” (TamTam Books). Vian’s title is “L’Ecume des Jours;” it was published in an earlier translation as “Mood Indigo.” I once described it as a cartoon that bleeds; I don’t know of another book that combines comic sweetness and dead-on hopelessness so well.
Albanian Ismail Kadare has written a lot of novels since “Chronicle in Stone” (New Amsterdam), but I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love this one in particular. That may be because, for many of us, the whole of childhood seems like a dream, and “Chronicle” is in many ways the quintessential novel of childhood, lonely, brave and nearly hallucinated. I first learned about it from the peerless short-story writer Grace Paley, who told me simply, “You must read it!”
And if nothing else, for heaven’s sake, read the Michael Hofmann translation of Kafka’s “Amerika” (New Directions). Everyone knows “The Castle” and “The Trial,” but where those two masterpieces are controlled and claustrophobic nightmares, “Amerika” is unpredictable and funny, as close to a Buster Keaton comedy as you can get.
So, do I have a bone to pick with “realistic” literature? Not really, but reality is what I can find outside my door any day of the week. A Chinese philosopher once asked, “Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?” Maybe in the end we’re both, and the line between what happened and what might have happened, the lives we had and the ones we might have had, is only the thickness of a butterfly’s wing -- or a page.
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